The protests in Istanbul during 2013 started with an environment-oriented reaction to the planned removal of trees in Gezi Park in Taksim Square.
Gezi Park, at Istanbul’s beating heart, saw itself turned into the centre of a unique cultural melting pot, uniting crowds from different walks of life within the country to utter their discontent and despair with the country’s political status quo. The unity between the different fractions apparently only survived for a limited time. A year after, the relentless crackdown on the different civic organisations is considered to have widely dispersed and immobilised any remaining opposition to the ruling AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) political class’s authority. There was widespread popular condemnation of the AKP party’s response to the initial protests, showing a total lack of coverage by the government controlled mainstream media. For as much as 84% of the participants this was reason to revolt, whereas 56% had pointed at the plight of the trees at the park as their reason to join the protests (online poll conducted by Istanbul Bilgi University).
The government’s uncompromising stance and a heavy-handed police crackdown on protesters led to the protests quickly spreading all over Turkey.
Since its inception in 2001, AKP has developed into the successful single ruling party with increasing authority and continuing success starting from its landslide victory in the 2002 parliamentary election.
Put in the words of Cemal Karakas, a political scientist and research associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), ‘’Turkey’s political culture is primarily influenced by nationalism (or more specifically Turkish-ness), Sunni majority Islam, pronounced ideas on centralism and the desire for strong political leadership figures. Concepts such as liberalism, the rule of law, interfaith dialogue or the capacity for self-criticism are largely alien.’’ What the protests have apparently shown is that despite rising dissent, the single ruling party has not lost the support of its core constituency. The protests would also have shown a weak opposition illustrating the fact that Turkey would still lack a persuasive and feasible political alternative.
In her article the dream is over, Luise Sammann, a German freelance journalist based in Turkey, emphasizes ‘‘…yet the Turkish prime minister, at whom much of the protestor’s rage was directed at the time, was not brought down. The opposite was, in fact, the case: never in the past 12 years of its government has the AP’s power seemed as rock solid as it does now. Not only the clear results of the local elections at the end of March , but also Erdogan’s confident domestic and foreign public appearances, his decisions in parliament and his dealings with his political adversaries seem just as uncompromising and authoritarian as ever.’’
She also questions the fact whether these protests were functional at all, interpreting effective prospective changes with respect to all that is wanted.
‘’… are the AKP’s election victory, it’s recently passed service act, the repeated attacks on the freedom of press and the commonplace police violence not proof enough that the Gezi protests were all for nothing? That is simply isn’t enough for hundreds of thousands to shout ‘’No!’’ all at once if no one is capable of defining what is actually wanted instead or developing political alternatives?’’
The increasingly authoritarian system of governance and the Islamist-influenced agenda, that can be seen in increasing restrictions of the freedom of speech and non-biased and independent press, absence of freedom of expression and assembly, lack of respect to minority rights of Kurds, Christians and Alevis, lack of free and critical mainstream media coverage, lack of independent judiciary, widespread unemployment and income inequality, lack of healthy platforms for objective journalism as well as vehement corruption were among the yearnings of protesters.
‘’ If there was a flashpoint for the ‘Gezi’ anger, it was the media. Almost every mass-media outlet in Turkey is owned by the same large conglomerates that also do significant business with the government and vie for the lucrative urban renewal, energy and construction projects which have fuelled Turkey’s economic growth. These outlets rarely publish anything critical of the government and have been known to come out with identical (government-friendly) headlines on certain critical days ‘’ writes Zeynep Tufekci, a research fellow at Princeton University, in her analytic piece – Pepper Spray and Penguins.
With respect to the 2013 protests, of great significance is the fact that it all took place spontaneously with no prior planning or organisation whatsoever. Still, apart from different non-governmental organisations, the protests also brought together different labour unions and professional associations representing large number of lawyers, doctors and engineers. It shows that no matter how much disparity was present within the aired voices of complaint, the whole movement bore with it a great strength and power.
With the mainstream media compromised, internet comes in to play through large coordination via social media like twitter and Facebook.
To prove how resultant and operative the role of social media can be in initiating, firing up, spreading and even organising a political movement, the Social Media and Political Participation Lab at New York University made a thorough analysis of the Turkish tweets throughout the ‘Gezi’ protests. 22 million tweets mostly entailing three major hashtags of #direngeziparki, #occupygezi and #geziparki have been reported. What is significant about this phenomenon is that despite governmental restrictions on the use of social media in times of crisis, most of the tweets and similar online correspondence have been carried out from within the country rather than from abroad. This is unlike the uprising in Egypt where the majority of virtual activities were stemming from outside the county.
The report phrases it as ‘’…certainly an impressive utilization of social media in overcoming the barriers created by semi-authoritarian regimes.’’
In its printed version under the headline of The March of Protests (2013), The Economist also reported that through the means of technology the pace of protests has considerably been accelerated by organising and spreading information via social networks.
The fact that the media have mostly been acquired by business ‘insiders’ has rendered them more restraint, impotent and susceptible to political manipulation and control. This is caused the ruling party’s vast power to decide, determine, impact and shape the profit opportunities in the sectors where also the media investors bear direct economic interests.
‘’The recent wave of protests has revealed both the extent to which the media has been silenced by the government, and how available communication technologies undermine the ability of repressive governments to control the flow of information and limit the freedom of expression. Coming together in a demonstration and acting in solidarity in a movement of resistance becomes relatively easy for people who are used to virtual friendships formed on the internet’’ says Ayse Bugra, professor of political economy at Bogazici University.
The major kick-start of reactions to press indifference and news sharing was where CCN Turk, a franchise of CNN International, broadcasted an arctic documentary on penguins while heavy clashes were taking place in the streets between the public and riot police under command of countering the protestors with violence and disproportionate reactions. Following this, penguins became a symbol of press criticism and self-censorship.
Pelin Turgut, a Turkish political and cultural commentator for TIME magazine and The Independent, in her article in Time puts forward that ‘’critics say Erdogan’s government has sought to control the media by levying heavy tax fines and seizing the assets of media firms perceived to be critical of his administration. Many large media companies also own businesses in fields like energy, banking and mining. Though the government denied any political motivation in those cases, the end result has been a deferential approach on the part of mainstream news outlets to government policies. Controversial journalists were quietly asked to leave. News items were whitewashed. Meanwhile, Erdogan often sued cartoonists and journalists who criticized him.’’
Yet lack of clear-cut and well-defined figure(s) to lead such a movement towards a unified direction with a set of pre-planned and discussed-upon demands in a hierarchical manner, has resulted in the fading away of the participants’ focus on what was actually being demanded from the system. On top of this, the opposition parties kept their distances from attempts to politically manipulate the demonstrations.
Similarly, with regards to the recent 2014 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Ishaan Tharoor, a senior editor at TIME magazine, sets out the main reasons for the argument that they could so far have been considered as a failure:
– The protesters won next to nothing
– The restraint and patience of the authorities
– A lack of leadership
– Loss of popular support
One can see some apparent resemblances. In Turkey, there was a lack of strong underlying reasoning which would have acted as a stimulus for continuing country-wide demonstrations. An uncoordinated number of demands were aired against the governing system leaving the whole movement with no apparent tangible success or solid consequences.
Moreover, an over-reactionary and disproportionate attitude from the Turkish government and police forces throughout the protests has resulted in human rights violations as reported by Amnesty International in its document published on October 2013. It shows how far the ruling elite have been willing to go in beating down these nation-wide unrests.
“The attempt to smash the Gezi Park protest movement involved a string of human rights violations on a huge scale. They include the wholesale denial of the right to peaceful assembly and violations of the rights to life, liberty and the freedom from torture and ill-treatment,” said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s expert on Turkey.
The decentralised nature of the protests, the lack of clear-cut list of demands, and the lack of sufficient and supportive leadership either independent or linked to any of the opposition parties, has again been a main feature of the 2013 Turkish protests. Ayse Bugra explains that economics is also part of the bargain ‘’…the self-protection of society against a particular form of governance which neutered politics and silenced voices of dissent by appealing to the requirements of economic success.’’
As an allegedly young republic, the tradition of political opposition in Turkey seems to be weak and in need of revitalisation. After the military coup in September 1980, opposition to the political establishment in the country has been almost non-existent.
‘’Although AKP managed to bring a significant blow to the Turkish Armed Forces, which were protected in large extent by the 1980 regime, it seems that they were replaced by the police and passed on to them the role of the guardian of the state. The violence of the police and the congratulating message by the Prime Minister concerning the effectiveness of the police actions is quite revealing in that respect. It is the police and the media, to name just two of the institutions that played a key role in recent events in Taksim square, that AKP employed, as other governments before did to suppress opposition,’’ evaluated by Nikos Christofis, a PhD candidate at Leiden Institute for Area Studies (LIAS), as part of his contribution to the comprehensive and collective 2013 study of Reflections on Taksim – Gezi park protests in Turkey at Keele European Research Centre.
There seems to be an absence of common or accustomed ideologies around which ultimately an existing or potential opposition political movement could acquire a clear-cut role of leadership.
Therefore there would be a need for a novel understanding and definition about the new appearances of political power and opposition.
Following a restructuring of its institutions, the country’s secular image has been tarnished even more heading towards a ‘New’ conservative Turkey. Secularism in schools has been undergoing a transformation that signals a reticence on the part of the AKP to separate religion from politics. Aysegul Sert, a New York-based journalist, writes studies that according to a report by the Education Reform Initiative (ERI), a nongovernmental education think tank in Istanbul, there has been a 73% increase in the number of religious vocational schools or ‘imam-hatip’ since 2010, reflecting a deliberate assimilation project aimed at nationwide Sunni indoctrination.
The AKP has demonstrated through its 12-year rule and its advocacy for freedom of choice a tendency towards establishing more religion within the education system. During this period, however, the rights to freedom of assembly, freedom of media and freedom of speech seems to have visibly come under surmounting pressure, as claimed by Aysegul Sert in her Turkish Reforms Entangle Education article.
It would be an over-simplification to consider the 2013 protests mainly and only as a collective unrest and utterance of discontent towards an ever-increasing authoritarian and Islamist system of governance.
Alternatively they should also not just be seen as an anti-capitalist drive against the privatisation of public space.
Philosopher Slovaj Zizek questions the underlying and foundational real reasoning in the backstage of the story.
‘’ It is also important to recognise that the protesters aren’t pursuing any identifiable ‘real’ goal. The protests are not ‘really’ against global capitalism, ‘really’ against religious fundamentalism, ‘really’ for civil freedoms and democracy, or ‘really’ about any one thing in particular. What the majority of those who have participated in the protests are aware of is a fluid feeling of unease and discontent that sustains and unites various specific demands. The struggle to understand the protests is not just an epistemological one, with journalists and theorists trying to explain their true content; it is also an ontological struggle over the thing itself, which is taking place within the protests themselves. Is this just a struggle against corrupt city administration? Is it a struggle against authoritarian Islamist rule? Is it a struggle against the privatisation of public space? The question is open, and how it is answered will depend on the result of an ongoing political process.’’
The ‘fluid feeling of unease and discontent that sustains and unites various specific demands’ is a development that is seen around the globe.
Irrespective from which type of protest or its presumed motives, which country or region one analyses, there is an apparent unity in the way any suppression of an individual’s identity by ‘authority’ is collectively rejected. On a general level, struggles in the 21st Century seem to be about the empowerment of the individual, that is armed with a smart phone and backed up by a world army of online ‘virtual friends’ acting as individual critics.
In this perspective, it becomes almost irrelevant whether the government and the ruling class are represented by a majority of votes in its elected parliament. It also does not matter ‘what is actually wanted’ by protestors as their case seems to be first and foremost about the acknowledgment of their individual rights irrespective of their social or ethnic background or political affiliation.
The power of the modern enlightened individual is illustrated best by the ‘Tank Man’ of Tiananmen Square. The images of him moving in front of a column of tanks on June 4, 1989, the morning after the Chinese military had suppressed protests by force, was filmed and seen worldwide and quickly became a powerful symbol of both the bloody events of 1989 and of non-violent resistance. Equally, the image of a protester shielding himself from tear gas with an umbrella has become a symbol of this year’s massive pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. This ‘Umbrella man’ has been shared on social media thousands of times. Since 1997 Hong Kong has been part of the PRC. China has developed one of the most sophisticated cyber-control units in the world. However, despite doing everything to keep a lid on the protests, China can’t control the information Hong Kong is sharing with the world.
In Turkey, a lone protester, Erdem Gündüz, stood silent on the 17th June 2013 in Taksim Square for hours, staring at the Turkish flags on the Ataturk Cultural Centre. The Internet distributed images and the ‘Standing man’ was the recipient of the 2014 Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. Founded by the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), the recipients of the prize are claimed to be the ‘’ones who with bravery and ingenuity, unmask the lie of dictatorship by living in truth.’’
The ‘Gezi’ protests will leave a legacy of having been the first protests of unity between different civic groups in Turkey, in favour of the power of the individual. The protests may arguably also symbolise the start of the end of totalitarian rule by a governing Turkish political elite. An elite that is judged for broadcasting penguins instead of a popular protests footage, and judged for using excessive violence to suppress them, by billions of online critics around the globe. Like China, Turkey has been unsuccessful in curbing its social media. It would seem plausible then to conclude that such will be the catalyst for political change for any anachronistic totalitarian style of governance of this generation.
Continuing to ignore the individual rights of its citizens, the Turkish political elite may face a Trojan horse ready to impose its rule through a flood of patient lone but online ‘standing men and women’ who are all ready to come out of anonymity.
About the Author
Golnaz A. Jafari obtained her B.A. in English Language & Literature from Tabriz State University in her native Iran, she has also studied LLB in International and European Union Law and LLM in International and European Union Business Law respectively from University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, and the Vrije Universiteit Bruxelles, Belgium. She is specialized in International law, Global governance, International Economic law and organizations as well as European Union law, Policy structure & Institutional framework in general.
Currently located in Istanbul, Turkey, Golnaz has previously worked in Ankara –Turkey being involved in the assignments concerning the country’s foreign affairs with European Union with regards its accession and candidacy phase. She has also taken part in different voluntary projects as a research analyst in the field of Human Rights and Humanitarian laws. Golnaz is part of GPPW’s internship programme.
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Picture credit: Eser Karadag